Life-Changing Experience: It’s been just over a week since I left Salem. I feel like I’m slowly emerging from the euphoric aftereffect the experience of UnCon produced. I can only now begin to analyze the insights gained and the effects produced.
For those who don’t know what an UnCon is (or was), it’s the brainchild of Writer Unboxed founder Therese Walsh—a five-day gathering of around 100 unboxed writers in Salem, Massachusetts. Not quite a writers’ conference, not quite a retreat, the WU UnConference was totally focused on the craft of writing. There have been some wonderful posts and statuses on the experience, and I identify with them all. Terms like “life-changing” and “transcendent” have been bandied, and not in a frivolous or crass way.
So I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been changed, and how my approach to my work has changed. I was struck by how layers were shed so that layers could be added. Allow me to explain.
Peeling Layers of Fear: One of my favorite posts about UnCon is by my friend Kim Bullock (read it here). Kim gets real about how UnCon and the people there managed to peel away her fears, about herself and about her work. She got me to thinking about my own layers of fear. Sometimes I feel like the little brother in Christmas Story, so bound up in layers I can hardly move ahead. But the experience of UnCon gives me insight as to how far I’ve come in shedding a few layers. I continue to gain freedom of movement to make progress on my journey. Going back to the beginning, to various degrees and at various times, here are some of the layers of fear I’ve been bound by:
*Admitting my writing aspiration—I told very few people when I started that I hoped to write a novel. I feared both that they’d think I’d never pull it off, and that they’d be right. I feared they’d think I was either nuts or a self-absorbed show-off. And I feared honestly asking myself if either of those was actually the case.
*Proclaiming myself a writer—Even after I finished a draft of my trilogy, I very rarely told those I met socially what I actually do (which is that I write fiction with a side of occasional carpentry). When I just said carpenter, it sometimes led to trouble. People would ask me to come and quote jobs for which I hadn’t the time or interest or desire. I finally realized it was easier just to say I was a writer—which also has its own set of obstacles, including dealing with the next item on this list.
*Admitting I’ve been writing for ten years and am still pursuing publication—We’ve all run into non-writers who don’t understand that successful novels aren’t written, but rewritten. Laymen think getting the thing down on the page—that’s the trick, right? Once those of us who are unpublished expose ourselves as writers to the non-writers in our lives, we must brace ourselves for the question: “So, how’s the book coming.” No matter how many manuscripts you’re working on, or how many essays, articles, or shorts you publish, they want to know about “the book.” And this could go on for years! Once I faced the fear and started coming clean, I found I could deal with the question in one of two ways: Smile, nod, and say, “The book is coming along.” Or enter into an explanation of the entire process and what I’m actually working on, and offer some explanation of why it all takes time. It’s a judgement call. Some are interested, some glaze over and/or change the subject. But it’s a layer of fear that you are forced to confront again and again. And the longer it takes, the more I imagine the laymen around me thinking, “Wow—his writing must really suck for this to be taking this long.”
*Telling people what I actually write—I spent many years avoiding telling people I write epic fantasy. I recall shortly after I started occasionally admitting that I write fiction, I met a woman at a party who asked me what I wrote. It was one of the first times I’d been asked by a new acquaintance. She surprised me into blurting, “Epic historical fantasy.” After a few nods and hums of feigned interest as I blathered about my chosen era, she interrupted me to ask: “So do you think you’ll ever write anything… you know, serious?” I honestly think she meant well. But the shock of it left me telling lies and half-truths for years afterward. “I write historical fiction,” or “I write fiction based in the ancient Roman era,” became my go-to answer to the question of what I write. I’m not sure when I overcame the fear of admitting it. I think I just got to a place of: “I don’t give a shit what you think of fantasy—it’s my genre; I’m a geek, and proud of it.” Funny that now, many years hence, I’m often immediately asked in response, “You mean like Game of Thrones?” My, how things change.
*Fear of being read/critiqued—I’ve written about my experiences with beta-readers and with being critiqued before. It’s never been easy for me to take criticism, but it’s certainly gotten easier over the years. It always takes me a day or so to absorb it and see it clearly. So I have never imagined myself taking critique well in a public setting, like a critique group that meets in real life. Despite my shortcomings, having great writer friends who’ve appreciated my work (as opposed to just friends and family) has been hugely encouraging and confidence-building. Even blogging has helped, but being read and critiqued is the ultimate and final layer of fear that I’ve struggled to peel away. And I know that it’s something I’ll have to continue to face, for the rest of my career. It only gets more extreme once your book is out there, being publically reviewed and discussed. (There was a hysterical and cathartic session at UnCon, led by the amazing and successful Erika Robuck, where she and other published author attendees shared their worst reviews. I can see having a sense of humor about my insecurity will help.)
UnCon—The Peel Sessions: Regarding my aforementioned fear of public critique, on day two of UnCon I was placed in a position by an admired mentor to face it. My favorite teacher of craft, Donald Maass, asked me if he could use the opening to my manuscript The Bonds of Blood during his session on micro-tension (a concept I’ve struggled to effectively master in my own work). I knew Don was going to ask the class to deconstruct my work, find its lacking, then together we would find our way to greater micro-tension in the scene. I supposed before arriving in Salem that this would be the most difficult trial I would face that week. To be honest, it was much easier than confronting the inner journey I would subsequently face. During the session, my fellow WUers were very kind and funny in the deconstruction process, and Don made it a fun exercise. I gained a better grasp on micro-tension than I’ve ever gotten from the books or posts (as good as they are). It was a gift. I consider that layer of fear truly and well peeled (for the moment).
So I’ve seen that some fears can be defeated. Some we can at least we can become inured to. But there are some we must face again and again if we are to grow. UnCon shined a light on one of the most important fears of all: Fear of revealing too much of myself—even to myself—through story. Sure, I’ve revealed parts of myself. There was self-revelation in my work before UnCon. But I’ve learned that I must delve deeper. I’ve learned that only through an honest and often difficult look at myself, and a willingness to infuse my work with what I’ve found, can I hope to truly connect in a genuine way.
Taken To Church: What Don asked of us in a later session took me to church. In his soothing voice, WU’s esteemed craft-guru asked us to look inside ourselves. At what we consider shameful, at our deepest truths; at what’s gone wrong in our lives, and at what’s gone right. He asked us to find a feeling we had never had before. Then he asked us to find the moments when our protagonist faces these things—feels these things. The session’s inner probing moved me to the point of filling my eyes with tears. A couple of times, in fact. I was peeled to my core, and I knew that what I’d found there was behind my writing journey. It wasn’t just there beneath the surface of my stories—it was at the root of what drove me to pick up a jobsite notebook and a carpenter’s pencil and write some cryptic notes about a Gothic chieftain’s son and his warrior-woman secret guardian.
From Thread-Bare to Well-Woven: Between the environment and being in the company of other willing souls, I found my way to stripping away the remnant layers. We were asked to dig as well as shed. Lisa Cron behooved us to find the foundations of our stories through backstory. She implored us to find specific moments that informed how our characters responded to the events of our ‘plots.’ “Specifics beget specifics!” was her refrain. For the story is not in what happens, but in how what happens affects our characters in the pursuit of a difficult goal!
So I came home, stripped of some of my longstanding fears, and started digging. The process is revealing the layers of depth that can be achieved. I can now see so far beyond what merely happens. I can see how much more deeply, how much more profoundly, my characters are affected by what happens. I more clearly see how it is all rooted in moments—some which are very specific—that have impacted me and left an impression on my psyche. It’s now clearer to me how my own deepest feelings are rooted in the stories I tell. If I can convey those feelings in a resonant fashion—if I can find my way to my truest self on the page—it’s certain to add richness to the weave of my stories.
The UnCon Recipe: The UnCon was dedicated to elevating our shared craft. And through insight and a newfound grasp on the tools, my potential as a storyteller has been elevated. I’m not saying that my experience at UnCon will make my books successful. Success is a relative term. But the tools and insights gained there offer me a course to greater personal satisfaction. And if I remain true to what I’ve been shown, I will find my way to truer connection with readers. Now that’s a recipe for success.
The results in Salem seem magical, but they wouldn’t have come about without dedication and commitment that started at the top and permeated to all involved. So thank you, Therese Walsh. Thank you, Don Maass. Thank you Lisa Cron, Meg Rosoff, Brunonia Barry, Liz Michalski, and all of your fellow presenters and contributors. And thank you to my fellow UnCon attendees. Thank you for your willing commitment to the elevation of craft. Thank you all for being part of that wonderful recipe that resulted in the WU UnConference.
What about you? Are you comfy wearing layers? Or do you easily shed those I’ve remained bundled in? Do you struggle to dig deep for the threads that add richness to what you weave?
Funny how removing each of these layers – leads to more hard work. But it’s work you can’t even begin to do with the zippers up under your chin.
“Fine. I’ll reveal X.” Then, “Fine. Readers can know I’m Y.”
It never ceases, potentially. That’s the What.
Then you also have to master the How – craft. To whatever degree you are capable of right now (it keeps changing, too).
And here I thought I didn’t like change.
It’s a good thing it comes in layers. I would never have started, had I known how many there were. Now, it’s too late to stop.
In reality, it was already too late when I was a small child captured by reading.
What an astute observation, Alicia. It truly is an ongoing evolution. And our first published books will only be a step in that evolution. And you’re also right that the die has long been cast through our love of reading. But I am glad I didn’t know what it would demand of me beforehand.
Thanks for your awesome additions here!
Thank YOU, Vaughn, for your constant community-building and support of your fellow writers. I’m still in awe at how brave you were to share your work during Don’s session, and I’m glad you are carrying that bravery with you as you move forward. Onward, upward – I can’t wait to see what you’ll have accomplished by the next conference in 2016! (If we say it often enough, it will be true, right?)
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I’ll take this opportunity to reveal a moment when I wasn’t brave at UnCon. When you and Brunonia had us write a scene including setting as character, then you read yours first. I was blown away, and felt hopelessly out of my league. It was so gorgeous. Then T read hers, and there was no way I was reading mine. I put that layer right back on and snuggled in to listen to gorgeous rendering after rendering of setting as character by my tribe-mates. The level of talent in Salem was utterly astounding!
So, thank you, Liz. I’m glad I had that brave moment to make up for it. Yes, I believe! #UnCon2016! (Although I hope it’s not that long before I see you again – it was a delight spending time with you, Liz!)
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Vaughn, as you know I relate a whole lot to this, and thank you for the link to my post about the UnCon. It sounds cliche at this point, but the experience honestly did change my life. When Don asked that question about a feeling we had never felt before, I remember taking a quick glance around the room, finding Jan and Liz, and then looking over at you and Val on one side of our table and Heather and Therese on the other. “I belong,” I thought to myself. For the first time in my life I could say that and not follow it up with a single qualification. Even better is that I can certainly give that feeling to my MC at a pivotal point in the story.
Oddly, I chickened out at the same point you had. I did show Heather what I’d written later and she smacked my arm and said I should have read it. I now wish I’d been brave.
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Wow – now you’ve gone and brought tears to my eyes again, Kim. I love that feeling of belonging you came up with, and I feel it, too, stronger than ever, with my WU family. I’m not sure I’m ready to reveal all of what I was going through there. But I will say that I’d been taken there once before, in a phone consultation with Cathy Yardley. This time Don pulled me to a slightly deeper level, but my understanding of my stories is clearer than ever. And I now better comprehend how important that is.
My pleasure on the link. I wish you’d read, too, but I’m still glad I didn’t. A guy can only be so brave in a week’s time. 😉 Thanks for sharing, Kim!
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**Swipes eyes with tissue**
I had meant to go to that Micro-tension class, but lunch ran very late and I would have had to run and come in late. Though I can’t regret the cemetery walk I took with Therese, Heather and Val, I do wish it would have somehow been possible for me to be in both places at once. I didn’t know your manuscript was on the chopping block. T and I were talking about it later and both felt bad that we hadn’t been there for you.
I actually went to find what I’d written for the setting as character class to share it here, but I can’t find that sheet anywhere!
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Yeah, pass the Kleenex, V. I’m so honored to have been part of that feeling, Kim. So glad I read all V’s comments to know I’d have a minor role in that feeling.
Vaughn, I’m used to revealing bits of myself in service to individuals or small groups of people. That was a necessary and hard-won part of my practice. But to commit it on the page where it can remain indefinitely accessible to all kinds of folk, especially in this age of virtual witchhunts and trolls? Scary. The Uncon has made me trust that it will be worth it.
You’ll notice I didn’t read my fiction aloud in any venue. I actually might have done if I’d had my laptop with me on the last night in the library and if we hadn’t run so late.
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Scary, indeed, Boss. Such a great gift we gave one another, to gain that kind of trust, isn’t it? Your comment makes me even more certain I’ll get the scene done that I’ve been putting off. I’ve done quite a bit of pre-writing since Salem, but it’s time to get in the saddle again. I trust that it’ll be worth it when I get this draft done, and hit the send button. (Hey, how about that? No cringe in typing that last sentence!)
I wish you had read, but it did run late that last night. You still get points for having talked yourself into it. Thanks for a great sentiment, and for being part of my writerly inner circle, Jan!
Kim, my feeling I had never felt before was exactly the same as yours. It was a feeling of belonging. It took some vulnerability to admit that I had, in fact, never felt that before, and also that this is what my writing is about. It was such a revelation for me. Vaughn, excellent post. I know just what you mean. The Uncon changed everything.
That’s so great that you felt that same sense of belonging, Linda! We were all cradled in such comfort among our fellows. It was the perfect atmosphere for shedding and growth and change for the better. Thanks for being a part of it, and for sharing your experience here!
It’s wonderful to hear what a great experience the Uncon was for you. The quote that came to mind after reading is: outside our comfort zone is where change happens. It’s so hard to go there but good for you for stepping up to the challenge! I love your story already so anything you polish now wil just add another layer of brilliance!
I love that quote, and it’s so apt in relation to UnCon. I really wish you’d been there, Nicole (although it’s very understandable that you couldn’t be). Thanks so much for your encouragement regarding Bonds. Maybe 2016? Either way, I know I’ll see you before then. Hope your writing is going well! Stay warm this week. (Cold this week in the Mighty Mitten, isn’t it?)
Beautiful post, Vaughn. I, too, found myself in tears at that moment in Don’s workshop and so many other times throughout the week. Reconnecting with the well-protected and hidden feelings that first set me working on this novel has meant everything to me. Thank you for expressing it so well and for all your work to make the week a success.
I find it unsurprising that I wasn’t the only one in tears, but I’m glad for the company, Barbara. 🙂 Yes, it was reconnection, but it felt new to me. I realize I was keeping it from myself–holding my feelings away, at a safe distance from the work itself. Thanks for being a part of UnCon, and for letting me know!
Beautiful post, V. I think when we look back, Salem, will define a turning point for many of us, in our writing. Not only were the workshops enlightening, the setting was extraordinary, and being surrounded by so many creative souls, all bringing to the table what only they could bring, their unique perspective and their stories… the ones only they could tell… makes you a believer in magic of a very special kind.
There was magic, for sure. I said long before we arrived that having so many of us in one place was bound to produce a special vibration in the universe, and did it ever! I wish I could go down the stairs from my office right now, and into the lobby of the Hawthorne, so I could find you there and talk to you, about what you’re doing and what I’m doing. But in spite of lacking that, the magic lingers. So looking forward to seeing what that lingering magic produces through you in the future, B! Thanks for everything!
What a thoughtful, personalized summary of the UnCon! So impressed you came home stripped of fears. Thanks for the post.
Hey Heather! Well, at least stripped for the moment. 😉 It was delightful getting to know you on the morning walks. Thanks for reading and commenting. Please come again! 🙂
Vaughn, I had a lot of fun keeping up with all the posts while many of my writer friends were at the conference. I haven’t heard anything but rave reviews about the events, speakers, and fellow writers. I’m so very glad it was a positive experience for everyone.
I’ve been MIA in the writing world for almost 6 months– a few major life events has changed my time priorities and I’m not sure how/if writing even fits in anymore. So layers, yes– in all their varied forms.
So glad it was an inspiring event for you and many others!
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And you’ve been missed. Although I still see a status update every once in a while, and I particularly love your photos of beautiful Colorado! I hope the major life events lead you to happiness and an outlet for your creative soul. I hope you still take the time to search though the layers we so often get wrapped up in as life goes on around us.
Know not only that your writing will always be there for you, but that our writing community will, as well. And please keep sharing those beautiful photos and statuses. You bring light with you wherever you go. It’s appreciated, Julie. 🙂
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The Don ought to supply tissues on the last day next time — I have yet to talk to someone who didn’t at least almost cry. My moment was right before lunch.
I love this post — shed layers to add layers, so good. I was so impressed that you were willing to let your work be used in the microtension session, but it really did bring The Don’s lessons home in a way that it hadn’t before for me, either. Let’s continue digging deeper 🙂
He got me right before lunch (again), too. Kept having to hide it from Porter, too. It wasn’t easy. 😉
I’m so glad you came to Salem, Natalie. You are such a shining star, brimming with energy. It was such a pleasure getting to know you IRL. And I hope to see you again before ’16. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, please let me know (beta-reading or what-have-you). Yes, here’s to deeper digging, my friend. Thanks for everything!
What a brave, beautiful post, Vaughn. I identified with so much of what you said, but honey, I’ve been pursuing publication even longer than you (19 years – YOWZA). I’ve had many successes: been paid for more magazine articles than I can count, I’m an award-winning copywriter and short-story author. However, I’m still unpublished where I want it most: novels.
When my agent left the biz in the fall of 2013 before we got a chance to sell my book it broke me. Launching my blog and helping so many writers has helped me find myself again.
Sounds like you found yourself @ the UnCon, too. Fantastic. I’m sure those lessons will shine through your writing now, too.
Wow, Marcy, thanks for your honesty. Makes me feel like a newbie. 😉 Seriously, I really admire your dedication. I’m glad you’re finding yourself again, and through such an admirable course as service to your fellow writers.
Thanks for the encouragement! Let’s vow to shine together, shall we? Onward!
Well, it ended up being an admirable course of service to my fellow writers in starting my blog. The truth is, I just wanted the heartache of losing my agent to STOP. Gratefully, it ended up being a win-win.
YES! Let’s not SUCK, but SHINE ON, together! 🙂
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I cried so much during the UnCon week. Something happened that first night at the banquet- meeting everyone and the dedication to Lisa opened up a valve of bravery and self-exploration I only pretended to know and understand before. It was the level of trust and community there. I kept looking at all the faces around me and thinking about moments we shared online and during that last session with The Don I looked around again and realized I now had moments with many in real life I would always treasure.
Open is the key word for me. I came back examining everything in new ways and ready to explore this openness in my writing. I had a lot of lightning moments, but the biggest was realizing how closed, how brittle I was before when I sat down to work on novels. When we lost Bob, I cried because I was a coward and the loss of a man who was not moved me in seismic proportions. I also felt Lisa there, when I took a walk alone that evening, and when I ran into Gretchen, she summed it up:
Realizing you’ve been a coward before, and facing that, is very brave.
I think many of took that first step to real courage in our writing while we were there. And you were one of them. #BeBrave
Thank you, Friend.
What a lovely and moving – and brave – comment, Tonia. It’s wonderful that we now have those moments, those memories, of each other in real life. People think that you can’t be “real” friends with those you meet online – that there is always a facade in place. They haven’t met my friends. I found everyone, including you, to be as genuine IRL and warm as they were online. I think we’ve been somewhat lucky, in that we found the right tribe. But we were all drawn there for a reason, right?
I agree with Gretchen. And what a tribute to WriterBob that realization is! You were very brave in Salem! I never got a chance to tell you how awesome your reading was. I hope to see you again before UnCon ’16. You continue to inspire me.
A pleasure. And selfish, really. It was a gift having you there.
Great post, V!
Sorry it took a few days to get here…the catch-up since the UnCon has been incredible.
I’m all about peeling layers and discovering new aspects of ourselves, confronting them, and moving forward. FEAR means “Face Everything And wRite!”
Honestly, I’m forever changed by the conference in a most spectacular way. It was such a pleasure meeting you IRL, and thank you so much for “the eye.”
No worries about when you arrive. You are always welcome. I like your acronym. Mine when I hit UnCon was OH FRIG! (Oncoming Head-smack — Face Remedial Instruction Gratefully). 😉
Other than the repeated head-smacking (self-inflicted), I remain very grateful. You were such a wonderful part of the dynamics there; before, during, and after, Mike. Thanks so much! (Glad we found “the iris” 🙂 )
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“Shedding layers” is a great way to put it, V. What I loved best is that people seemed to shed those layers at the door — like talking off a coat in the Library at the Hawthorne Hotel and leaving it there for the week. There were no false front or buffers between people. It’s really hard to describe to anyone who wasn’t there except to say that it was Real — 24/7 (or 24/5, in our case!).
Anyway. Thank you for everything YOU brought to the Un-Con, V. You were a helpmate to me and went way beyond with your willingness to have your work become a teaching took for others. You’re a huge and important part of the heart of the WU community, and I truly can’t thank you too often for all you do.
I just think about how bundled up in my layers I’d be without WU, and I’m more than happy to be of service in any way I can, T. And you’re right – what a perfect group to help each other grow by so willingly shedding those layers at the door of UnCon. You tend to draw like minds, or perhaps that it’s that you draw the giving nature within us to the surface through your example.
It’s funny, but just about every time I’ve had the opportunity to ask of others in the name of WU, the response has been something like: “I’d love to give something back to WU!” It’s a recognition of what we gain together, and a unique level of gratitude for that gift.
And that’s exactly how I still feel to this day, several years hence from the day you first asked me if I’d be willing to help moderate the group page. (I wonder what that date actually is – was it mid-2011?). Anyway, thanks to you for the gift of WU, and for empowering me to get this far. I’m looking forward to future opportunities to serve my favorite community, and to help the dear friend that founded it!
[…] Shedding Layers/Adding Layers—The Insights and Effects of UnCon ~Vaughn Roycroft […]
Vaughn, a wonderful post. I’ve been where you are in my writing but not as brave as you. I got to this post from your visit to mine. This as in 2014. I’m curious as to where you are now.
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Hi Diana! I clicked over to your post from the comments of today’s WU post. Congrats on your success!
As for me, I’ve been out on submission with an agent for… almost two years now. I’ve been passed on by some of the best editors in epic fantasy, lol. Seriously, the manuscript that’s out on sub is book one of a trilogy, and I recently finished a draft of book three. In the interim, an editor I’ve been working with (starting with book one) recently finished a work-up on book two, and together we’ve decided to overhaul the opening and the first few chapters of book one. Might as well, eh? Anyway, I’m uncertain where I stand with my agent (I think he’s sort of informally given up on me). But whether I seek new representation or go the indy route, thanks to my editor (she’s AMAZING!), I’m certain I’m going out there with a much improved product–one I feel good about.
Keep on keeping on, Diana! Thanks for popping by. Wishing you the best.
Vaughn, I’m wishing you the best too. You’re a good writer. It’s evident from your blog posts and the way you approach the material. I’m impressed. As for your agent, I had one for my screenplays (before I started writing novels). He was so excited about me but when he couldn’t sell one, he gave up on me, even though Jody Foster’s agent loved my story. I should’ve kept going, but that’s when I decided to turn my screenplay into a novel.
Like you, I rewrite and rewrite. Writing is rewriting.
I was intrigued by your 2014 comment about Donald Maass. I think that’s when I heard him speak about the importance of delving deep into a character’s emotions. It was at the Surrey International Writers Conference in B.C. I bought two of his books and I’ve taken a Master workshop from him before.
Interestingly enough, when I wrote this last novel, based on my grandmother’s life, I think I was so worried about getting the facts straight and doing justice to her existence and the love she had for family, I neglected to dig deep into her character. Fortunately, I had a great editor who pointed out places where I needed to expose her heart and thoughts more. And now it’s paid off. I guess you noticed I’ve garnered some attention for this book.
Hang in there. You’ve got some great stories to tell. I’m not a reader of your particular genre, but there are scads of people who are.
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Don is an excellent teacher, for sure. Beyond his having been a mentor, he’s become a pretty good friend, as well (via our being colleagues at WU). I’m quite sure he’ll be in the acknowledgements of whatever I first end up publishing.
Aren’t those editors gold? Or is it angels? Either way, here’s to them. And here’s to the storytellers, like you and me. Cheers!
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Glad to have met you online. Let me know when your book comes out. Writing a trilogy is a mammoth feat. Each book has its own pace. I don’t understand writers who churn out a couple a year. Each one of mine has taken six to ten years. I’m hoping the one I’m working on now will be done a lot faster. Cheers!
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